---- — LYNN — You didn’t really think Masconomet and North Andover could go an entire season without playing each other in boys soccer, did you?
It seemed impossible that for the first time in about 40 years the Chieftains and Scarlet Knights weren’t scheduled to meet on the pitch this season. The soccer gods thought it was strange, too, and saw to it that they met in the Division 2 North final here at Manning Field yesterday.
Neither team was here thanks only to whimsical soccer gods. Given the talent on both sides and the season the Chieftains and Knights were enjoying, futbol afficianados were looking forward to this matchup for most of the season.
Getting the Chieftains and Scarlet Knights on the pitch, in a game for all the marbles in the North, seemed destined to happen.
“I certainly don’t believe in destiny, but I do believe North Andover is a quality club,” said Masco coach Dave Mitchell. “My guys were looking forward to it, as I’m sure they were.”
Masconomet prevailed, 2-1, to win their fourth North championship in a game that was befitting of the rich soccer tradition of both programs. The winning goal, a 52-yard free kick by Kevin Gilbert in the 69th minute, was a thing of beauty, and there were plenty of other plays that made the crowd, and the hairs on your neck, rise.
There was a tangible respect between Masconomet (now 22-1-1) and North Andover (which suffered its first loss and ends the year 21-1). Neither team was prone to diving or looking for fouls, insteading carrying the ball with steely intensity. It was the sort of thing that gets built up over time, since the seniors on both teams have been going at each other since they were seven years old.
“I’ve seen these guys a ton in town soccer and I’ve played some of their guys in club matches,” said Masco senior Jeff Panella, who screened North Andover’s keeper on Gilbert’s winning goal.
“Everytime we play them, there’s something about it. It’s Masco-North Andover: That’s really all you have to say.”
If the Chieftains (playing Walpole tomorrow at Manning at 7 p.m.) are to win the program’s second state title, it’ll be all too fitting that they went through the rival Scarlet Knights. As the Red Sox went through the Yankees in 2004, the Bruins went through Montreal in 2011 and the Celtics beat L.A. in 2008, Masco topping North Andover in a championship season puts everything as it should be in the Tri-Town area.
“I couldn’t ask for a better game,” said Panella. “I don’t think there’s one team I’d rather play in a North final than North Andover.”
These were undoubtedly two of the top five teams in the state. North Andover was unbeaten and hadn’t allowed a goal in the state tournament before Edison Forbes scored in the second minute yesterday. Masco’s lone blemishes were a loss to D1 North champ Somerville and a tie with runner-up St. John’s Prep.
NA drew even when Mike Skarbelis scored in the first minute of the second half. The Knights had the better of the chances, though possession was fairly even. Max Craig’s near miss on a deft pass from P.J. Criscione was one of Masco’s more creative scoring chances, and NA’s Adam Jackson and Derek Zahoruiko had great opportunities at the goal.
“They attack so quickly and they play well to their feet,” Mitchell said of North Andover. “They were clearing the balls all the time. It was a top flight game.”
Masco and North Andover have been going at each other in soccer since the dawn of the Cape Ann League. For many of those battles, coaching legends Lenny Emmons and Bill Tarbox were on the sidelines.
Both men were on hand for a preseason scrimmage between Masco and North Andover this year, in a game both teams described as an intense battle that didn’t feel like the preseason. Anytime it’s Masco and NA, the kids playing want to win.
No one could have predicted back in August that the team posing for a picture with their Hall of Fame former coaches would play for the North title. They did, and they put on a display that’s up there with any in the rivalry’s proud lore.
“It was a pretty even game,” said Gilbert. “It was a lot of fun to be out there against those guys again. It was a good final.”
Since North Andover left the CAL for the MVC, the schools have tried to keep each other as non-league opponents. In Mitchell’s three years (he has a 57-6-6 record), he’s 3-0-1 in the rivalry. This year, the schedule didn’t work, and that prompted Mitchell and NA coach Kyle Wood to set up the scrimmage, just in case.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better result, from our side, and to play against such a class opponent,” said Mitchell.
It was a battle of North champions, with North Andover having won last year and Masco having taken Division 1 North in 2011. Now, the Chieftains have to keep their form against an unfamiliar foe, Walpole, in the D2 state final. Their seniors will stay within themselves, and they’ll work as hard as they can to make it happen.
“This team’s earned it,” said Panella. “We’ve earned every bit of it.”
Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor of The Salem News. You can contact him at MWilliams@salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.